Shuffled off to history, veneration of Roh Moo Hyun will follow

By Howard W. French
Published: December 28, 2007
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
SHANGHAI: When is a country’s election no longer of principal concern to the voters themselves?
On the eve of the opening of their own long electoral season, Americans would do well to ask themselves this question. After all, foreigners in every corner of the world have made a habit of following American politics for years, unable to vote, of course, but also ever more aware of the powerful ways in which America’s choices affect life for everyone else on the planet.
Examples of this readily spring to mind in an era where an American-led war in Iraq and the war on terror shape much of the international political scene and where American deficits in trade and finance drive global markets.
But in order to be a powerful agenda shaper, one doesn’t need to be the world’s lone superpower, albeit one whose relative strength many experts believe to be in decline. And although it helps, one needn’t even be a fast-rising power, like China, or a seemingly resurgent one, like Russia, in order to exert a strong influence on the ebb and flow of international affairs.
We have grown so accustomed to speaking of an interconnected world that the image itself has become a truism. Still, the fact remains that in this transitional moment between a roughly symmetrical order that was organized around two rival poles and an uncertain but surely more complicated future, few policies of any consequence are decided in a vacuum
In recent years, South Korea, the prosperous, democratic half of a country once known as the Hermit Kingdom, has provided us with as good a reminder of this as anyone. When Roh Moo Hyun was elected president in 2002, few would have predicted that the ballot choices of his country’s 35 million registered voters would have played a determining role in international affairs over the next several years. And yet that is exactly what transpired.
Roh is leaving office as a deeply unpopular leader, a man lampooned as ineffectual, undisciplined and, for some, even mischievous. Seen narrowly, such a reputation would suggest the slimmest of legacies.
At least one thing that Roh believed in deeply will prove to have mattered greatly and will very likely stand the test of time, however, lending unexpected importance to his role and to the role of his country well into the future.
The South Korean leader was strongly attached to the idea of rapprochement with the estranged northern half of his country. In the end, this meant holding his ground under the most trying of circumstances, including a gale of hostile language directed at Stalinist North Korea from Seoul’s most important ally, the United States, whose president, George W. Bush, branded it a member of the “axis of evil.”
Few Americans outside of the small community of specialists in East Asian affairs have any sense of the role played by Roh. Indeed, exasperated with Roh over other issues, South Koreans appear not to give him much credit, either.
What we do know now, however, is that the Bush administration spent the new few years, following the famous 2002 State of the Union speech in which he first pronounced the words “axis of evil,” fighting a war in one of the constituent countries, Iraq, and steadily ratcheting up pressure on another, Iran.
For a time, tensions rose strongly with the third country, North Korea, too, especially after its leader, Kim Jong Il, expelled international atomic inspectors and exploded a nuclear device. Pyongyang’s nuclear breakout surely helps explain why the United States has not chosen a more confrontational approach, as it did with the other so-called axis members, but one could argue that the behavior of the supposedly feckless Roh was equally important.
Under the circumstances, avoiding conflict and enhancing engagement required a huge dose of determination and considerable diplomatic skill. At times, Washington was furious at what it perceived as Seoul’s appeasement of the North, so much so that people in both countries worried about irreparable damage to the alliance.
At considerable cost to his popularity back home, Roh, who was elected 11 months after the “axis” speech, bought diplomatic maneuvering space for himself, if not outright credibility in Washington, by becoming an early joiner of the “coalition of the willing” and sending troops to Iraq.
It is, of course, impossible to know what might have happened had South Koreans elected a more hawkish leader, or simply a more compliant one. It is not far-fetched to imagine, however, that the Bush administration could have taken a more confrontational approach toward North Korea than the path it ultimately settled upon.
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